February 8th 1855: ‘Devil’s Footprints’ appear

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Depiction of the original Devil’s Footprints in 1855

On this day in 1855, heavy snowfall hit southern Devon in the United Kingdom. The next morning locals awoke to find a mysterious set of footprints in the snow. The footprints were in single file in the shape of cloven hooves and supposedly stretched for hundreds of miles, going through walls, houses and over water and rooftops. The befuddled townsfolk concluded that the Devil had walked in their midst. The single file footprints suggested a creature on two legs rather than four and the cloven shape fitted with contemporary imagery of the Devil. Satan is traditionally pictured with cloven hooves, as it was adapted from a pagan deity, and the wings represent Lucifer’s nature as a fallen angel.

 

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Traditional depiction of Satan (by Gustave Doré)

 

There have been numerous theories put forward (beyond the supernatural), from escaped kangaroos, a hot air balloon dangling a rope, to roaming badgers. It is unlikely the footprints were faked, though their appearance did certainly benefit the Devon clergy as the churches were filled with people terrified by the Devil. This is an interesting case as it reminds us that beliefs in the supernatural remained well into the 19th century. The last executions for witchcraft in the Western world occurred at Salem in 1692 but paranormal beliefs continued, and even persist to this day. To avoid the arrogance of ‘modernism’, we must remember that people still firmly held these beliefs in the 19th century; we cannot isolate ourselves from these people in the past under the pretenses of superiority. The mystery of the Devil’s Footprints remains unsolved to this day, but modern thinkers tend to reject the notion that the Devil traversed across 19th century Devon.

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